Suzan Mazur: It’s clear to me from reading your papers that you have issues with neo-Darwinism.
Luis Villarreal: The issues first came up when I began looking at quasispecies in the early 1970s. I was a researcher in the lab of the late John Holland, where there was real enthusiasm for studying evolution theory in the context of actual virus measurements, because the whole concept derived from thinking about RNA viruses.
I wasn’t interested really in evolutionary theory at a deep level. I was interested in persistence, and for this the Modern Synthesis didn’t seem to be working. I just assumed that the theory didn’t apply or work in the specific situations we were studying involving persistence, such as VSV, rabies and measles. But the more I got into the research, neo-Darwinism appeared to be working less and less. After I left that area of RNA virus research and began investigating SV40/polyoma virus with Paul Berg at Stanford, that’s when it really struck me that a shift in evolutionary thinking was required — because I realized that these were viruses that make their living by being persistent and stable entities that are essentially part of the host. The theory we had at the time to explain that relationship did not make any sense to me. And that’s when I started on my current path.
Suzan Mazur: Neo-Darwinism made no sense.
Luis Villarreal: Right. In terms of selfish individual types, runaway replicators, and that whole set of related concepts.
Suzan Mazur: You open your recent New York Academy of Sciences paper on viruses by saying: “All living habitats (including prebiotic ones) have and must operate in a virosphere (a network of infectious genetic agents)”. That’s pretty sweeping.
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